On a forum mainly accessed by parents of learners with specific difficulties, a debate about laptops in schools is raging. My contribution (which engendered some abuse about my ignorance, laziness and lack of understanding about recent developments in digital technologies) was that laptops are not necessarily the panacea for all ills. I wrote:

The ownership of a laptop does not guarantee effective learning!

Many children with difficulties undoubtedly find digital technologies extremely useful but they are not a panacea for all ills. Some kids just don’t like using laptops, if it makes them feel different, or because motor skills are not developed sufficiently to use unadapted keyboards.

As in everything else, children need motivation, training and practice before becoming competent. There are many shortcuts, many wonderful resources available to enable youngsters to access the curriculum without the barrier of print, many tools that allow them to demonstrate knowledge and understanding without having to read and write. And many schools actively encourage learners with difficulties to use the technologies. But parents cannot expect teachers to be completely knowledgeable about all new technologies instantly, and cannot expect that their children will suddenly cease to have learning difficulties just because they own some new kit.

One decision we teachers have to make is how to deploy the limited time we have to the best advantage of the child. If I choose to teach a child how to use a spell checker efficiently, how to access text to speech software and audio books, how to touch type, how to make a video or use a digital voice recorder, how to mind map ideas or make notes using text-speak, then the time for other activities (such as, for example, phonics) is diminished.

At what point do I cease to teach him or her to read, write and spell, or at least change the emphasis?

It is likely that those same parents who complain so vociferously about teachers’ ignorance of digital technologies would take up the cudgels if they felt their children were not receiving targeted support in acquiring literacy. We just can’t win! (I’m so glad the proposed ‘Free Schools’ policy does not extend to Scotland).

My simple point was that a laptop is a tool, just as pencil and paper are. Technology is incredibly powerful when used effectively, when youngsters are empowered to use it. But they need time to learn how to use it: the fact of having one will not, by itself, assist or enable learning.

A most interesting blog post delineating 50 Educational Apps for the iPod Touch alerted me to the wide ranging applications for some mobile devices and made me realise that in many ways, a mobile phone is more useful than a laptop:

  • you can photograph the homework that’s written on the board;
  • use texting and the calendar to support organisational difficulties;
  • translate French without having to trawl through the dictionary;
  • navigate around the school as well as access Google Earth;
  • play hangman and develop spelling; calculate maths problems;
  • create an electronic story book by writing text, and either drawing on the screen or using your own photos; record sound effects too.

There are apps for

reading e-books, including over 50,000 free titles and a basic ruler in inches or centimetres. One excellent little app quickly shows you any unit (area, temperature, length and weight, to name a few) in most other units, e.g. for Length it shows you Miles, Nautical Miles, Yard, Foot, Inch, Kilometre & Metre. This is the perfect app to illustrate why we should think about whether we need to spend time teaching our kids this stuff when it does it for us so quickly…

On the same site as the Forum is a discussion of the use of mobile phones for dyslexic learners.

Schools are not perfect, teachers don’t know every solution to a learning challenge. But most of us do try!